International athletics could be back at Crystal Palace in five years – AW

    Smaller-scale meets may take place beforehand but the current projection might see global events in 2028

    Evolution, not revolution.

    The plan to bring the glory days back to Crystal Palace is already underway and emphasis is on building what is already in place, not starting from scratch.

    Next to the main sports centre lies the once state-of-the-art 16,500 capacity stadium that hosted world-class events for decades and, if everything goes to plan, there is now a real prospect of the best in the business returning to Crystal Palace once again.

    Look at the stadium in its current state and that might be hard to believe. When AW visited in the summer, bird excrement covered both the indoor track and seats outside, the synthetic track was so worn away in places you could see the concrete and the floodlights had been taken away for safety reasons.

    Rightfully, those who have an affinity with the venue aren’t always overly optimistic after a decade of broken promises and plans going back to the drawing board.

    Ben Woods, who AW exclusively spoke to at Crystal Palace back in July, is the man aiming to break that cycle.

    Ben Woods (Tim Adams)

    Part of the team that helped deliver the 2022 Commonwealth Games, he was chosen by Sadiq Khan to be Project Director at the Greater London Authority (GLA) for the redevelopment of Crystal Palace, a role that he has now been in since January 2023.

    Since his induction, short-term work on the track has already started.

    Last week (November 27), new temporary floodlights were installed, while the track has already been cleaned and refurbished.

    “We’ve done the vast majority of the track repairs now,” Woods says. “There are a few bits of the inside lane that still needs doing. The final phase of that will be done in the spring and hopefully in March.

    “At that time we’ll get all the equipment out and tested. That’s when we’ll get the UKA certification which will allow for certain lower level competitions. We’ve worked with UKA to get the right lux levels of lighting for competitions. I’d say by next summer that the track, lighting and equipment are all in place.”

    Woods, who grew up in Upper Norwood and watched the likes of Steve Cram and Michael Johnson at the Grand Prix meets in the 1980s and 90s, states he understands the significance of athletics at Crystal Palace.

    “We’ve got a magnificent stage,” Woods adds. “Where else do you get that bowl in a listed park? The name Crystal Palace is also world famous. The stadium is beautifully designed and the acoustics are amazing.

    “I was at the Diamond League [at the Olympic Stadium] but at the end of the day it’s a one-off event. What about the rest of the year? That’s where I see Crystal Palace really fitting into that infrastructure.

    “A key home for London athletics and the wider region. We’re really excited about the potential for the stadium as a 365-day a year home for the sport.”

    Usain Bolt at Crystal Palace (Getty)

    The obvious question then is, down the line can world-class athletics return to a venue which hosted the Diamond League from 1999 to 2012?

    “Short-term it’s [about] smaller-scale meets but for international style events we’re talking five years in the future,” says Woods.

    If that timescale is fulfilled then the elite of track and field could compete at Crystal Palace in the same year as the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympics.

    However, Woods is the first to emphasise that this is a long process and there is a way to go yet. After all, when Birmingham won the bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2017, it was delivered in 2022. That was a four-and-a- half to five-year project and Woods is working on a similar timeframe at Crystal Palace.

    The project is split into two phases. While there are early works centred around the track, equipment and temporary floodlights; analysis and business plans are currently being drawn together for both the centre and the stadium.

    Right now, the focus is on talking to stakeholders, listening to residents and understanding the needs and concerns of people in the community.

    If planning application for the centre – which houses Olympic-sized swimming and diving pools that have been closed since March 2020 – is approved by Bromley Council next year, construction is scheduled to start on the main building from 2025 until the middle of 2026.

    Back straight at Crystal Palace in July 2023 (Tim Adams)

    That means that diggers would be at the stadium, which is phase two, from just before 2027 onwards and with a projected completion in 2028.

    In this stage of the process, the idea is to install a new 400m track that could potentially be fit for both international competition and training.

    In addition, an accredited 200m track is also in the current plans, inspired by World Athletics’ ‘short-track’ announcement back in May, where athletes would be able to gain ranking points and set records on an outdoor 200m track. The newly built track at Crystal Palace would be based between the stadium and centre. It could also be used as a warm-up area for athletes before a competition.

    “I think athletics generally is looking at what are the event profiles moving forward and how can we make it more interesting for a youth market?” Woods states. “We want to be part of those conversations and that’s why we’re also looking at the 200m ‘short-track’ from World Athletics.

    “The sprinting culture we have here is almost unique and it’s a hub. One of the real drivers is upgrading the indoor straight and we’re even seeing that as a potential event venue.”

    That’s not to say that events won’t happen in the short to medium term.

    Crystal Palace in 2022 (Mark Shearman)

    Currently, for safety reasons, the West Stand is closed and you can only fit 500 out of the capacity 4000-seater Jubilee Stand.

    “We’re looking at those structural checks at the minute of bringing the seating bowl up to standards,” Woods adds.

    “We’re working on certification. The West Stand is completely closed while we have structural checks. The Jubilee Stand can still be used for events of 500 capacity. We’re looking at getting the whole of the Jubilee Stand certified. That allows for bigger events. We need to work on the analysis of the Jubilee Stand but I’d like to think that by next summer we are capable of hosting smaller events.

    “We’ve got to look at things like crowd loading and crash barriers for example as well as ease of access and ancillary areas like toilets. It’s a sound building [Jubilee Stand] and we’ve just got to polish it and make sure it works to get that license. Over the course of next year I’d like to think we can increase it from just 500 but I can’t promise it would be full capacity. That’s what we’re heading towards though.

    “Can we start to run school events down there with the capacity of 500-1000? Then work of regional championships, then national championships. We want this stadium, if it’s going to be the athletics home for London, to be that for every day of the year. This won’t live and die off a one-off event.”

    Dave Bedford sets world 10,000m record at Crystal Palace (Mark Shearman)

    There is a budget that has been signed off by City Hall but those associated with the project understand the significance of sponsorship, especially with the long-term redevelopment of the stadium.

    Given the cultural and historical significance of athletics at Crystal Palace, the offer is a strong one.

    “We’ve got this stage and want to bring it back to life,” Woods says. “We’ve got some capital funding but it’s the ‘what if question’. If it grows and we get that viable business plan then there’s the potential of not ‘what is’ but to actually expand slightly. It’s really dependant on others coming on that journey and so far the mood music has been very positive.

    “We have a 15-16,000 capacity stadium as we speak but that could be so much more. Whether that’s VIP, hospitality, increased capacity or modern standards of HD lighting? That’s the supercharged point. We’re open for business.

    “We have the stage and it’s 85% there. Can someone come in and help us with that final 15%? We want a stadium not just fit for the 21st but the 22nd century.”

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